Historians have studied the Chinese Exclusion Act extensively and have recorded many aspects of the politics behind the events. However, they often focus their attentions on the motives of the excluders. They pay little attention to those that were excluded and the impact that it had on their lives. One important question has escaped the scrutiny of historians. Why, if they knew of the hardships and discrimination that they would face in America, did all of those Chinese immigrants continue to flock to America in droves?
What motivated them to leave their home and families to arrive at Angel Island and have to buy a new identity, all at great personal risk, to stay in America? What was the big attraction? Sure, there were jobs here and they could send money home to support their distant families, but the life in America was hard and treacherous. The following will explore the historiography of Chinese-Americans and the impact that the exclusion act had on shaping the course of Chinese-American culture. It will also examine man gaps that have been left by historians. The answers to these gaps will help shed light on the many questions that surround this era.
History and Impact of the Exclusion Act
Erik Lee explored the impact and motive behind the actions of Chinese immigrants in his book At America's Gates. Lee relates the experiences of Chinese-Americans to the immigration story of his Grandfather. In this case, he has first had knowledge of the events and their impact on Chinese-Americans. This personal experience apparently sparked his interest in the topic of how the Exclusion act impacted other Chinese-American Immigrants and their families. Lee uses primary sources to draw his conclusions and support his thesis. He relied exclusively on the documents of immigrants and those that were deported as his data source. This gives his work and incredible heir of reliability.
However, even Lee admits that he used his own interpretation to "read between the lines" of the immigration documents. This is inherently dangerous in any research setting. It is particularly disturbing when we consider that Lee felt passionately about the issues, especially as theory related to his own family history. There is a danger that Lee inadvertently introduced his own expectations on the research, which may have skewed the results. For these reasons, one must take this into consideration when they read his theories on the impact of the Exclusion Act.
Regardless of the validity issues with Lee's research, he still contains an excellent section of the background of the Exclusion Act. He raises many questions and makes observations that appear to have been missed by other historians. In the 1850s thousands of Chinese flocked to California in search of Gum Saan, or Gold Mountain. This was what the Chinese called the United States. Many immigrants planned to come to the United States, make a fast buck and then go back to their villages in China. However, when many got here, their plans changed and they stayed a lifetime. The money was good and Chinese workers found that they could provide much more for their family if they stayed.
Life in the U.S. was hard and often workers had family in China. They often did not get to see them for many years on end. This was difficult for the wives and children back home and for the immigrant, yet they stayed. Many escaped destitute situations in China, so they stayed. In some cases women and children migrated at a later date.
According to Lee, the first Chinese immigrants had an easy time immigrating. There were few rules and America welcomed all who came to work and contribute to the new economy. Many simply walked onto American soil and began their new life. By the turn of the century things had changed dramatically. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese immigrants from becoming fully naturalized citizens.
According to Eric Lee, the first two decades of the exclusion were vaguely defined. The specifics of the law and the methods of enforcement were unclear. If was not even certain who would enforce the laws, or how this would be accomplished. Therefore, the laws were easy to circumvent in the early days. This allowed the entrance of many laborers that helped to build the factories and transportation systems that allowed for the advent of the Industrial era. However, as time went on the laws became more specific and it became almost impossible to gain entrance. Only certain classes of workers were allowed to enter. General laborers were not allowed to enter. However, teachers, merchants, students, diplomats and travelers were still allowed to enter under the Exclusion Act. By the 1920s even Chinese that were natural born or naturalized were in danger of exclusion if they left the country and tried to return.
The Exclusion Act marks the first time in U.S. history that a group of people were barred from entry based on race. This also represented the largest deportation of any immigrant group. Court cases launched by Chinese-Americans secured the rights of families of merchants and native-born citizens to apply for admission into the country. The Exclusion act was in effect until 1943 when it was repealed. At the turn of the century Chinese immigrants were interrogated and humiliated before entering the country. The immigrant had to prove that they were exempt from exclusion laws. They were subjected to an intense examination of their belongings. There was a general belief that fake papers and falsehoods were prevalent among those who wished to enter the United States.
In order to gain entry, an excluded worker would often pay a legitimate excluded entity to "adopt" him as a son, brother, etc. The two then had to prepare so that they got their family history straight. They had to give up their identity and assume a different legal name. They had to pretend to be someone else and be ready to fool the authorities. It is often difficult to trace the immigrant's roots because of this phenomenon. One can often trace them to Angel Island, but can go no further. Immigrants were questioned extensively. The typically stay at Angel Island (the West Coast Immigration point) was around two weeks. It was a harrowing ordeal to say the least.
Like Lees' Grandparents, many that lived through the ordeal were unwilling to talk about it. They wanted to forget the horrors of the past and move on to the life that they had dreamed of. In order to examine exclusion laws and the effects of them on the lives of Chinese-Americans one has to look at historical record. The exclusion laws forced families to separate, often for long periods, and sometimes never to see each other again. A form of racism drove immigrant officials that portrayed the Chinese as degraded and dangerous menaces to society. Once they were in the country they were subjected to scrutiny and always under watchful eyes by officials who would deport them in a heartbeat.
Through all of these hard times the Chinese developed ways of dealing with the system. Despite restrictions on their freedom of movement, civil liberties and human rights the Chinese managed to mount a resistance to their situation. They protested as individuals and as a group. Much of this resistance was passive in nature. They found ways to avoid exclusion laws, and adapted their strategies to get around the system. They sent petitions to government officials and sued in court. They used the press to their advantage. They knew that to protest openly and violently would mean their deportation, or worse, possibly their extermination. They had to use peaceful means of protest out of necessity. They had to walk the straight road well within the confines of the law.
America had always prided itself as begin a refuge for peoples of every place on earth. America was a place where everyone was welcome and could find safe haven. It was a place where new ideas flourished and peace equality was the order of the day. At least this was the rhetoric that one would hear from the government and other entities. America was billed as the land of opportunity. However, it is difficult to argue that this image held for all peoples. One certainly could not say that for black Americans, especially those living in the Old South. One could not say that for Native Americans, many of which were simply exterminated and those that did live were fenced like cattle. One could not say that for Latinos either. However, the Chinese were the ones specifically excluded from entering the country. It seemed as if the open-door policy of the United States only applied to certain groups of people. It seemed as if it were a land of opportunity, but only if your skin was colored white. Any other color of skin set you apart as an outsider and one to be treated with suspicion.